Thursday, August 13, 2009

Extreme learning - learn from an autistic savant

Daniel’s an autistic savant, one of less than fifty worldwide that have ‘Savant syndrome’, with unbelievable mental abilities in maths and language acquisition, matched by weaknesses in social skills. In this, his second book, he tries to lay bare the inner workings of his own remarkable mind. What I love about this book is his laser-like attention on the brain, or rather his own brain. Daniel knows a great deal more about learning than most learning professionals because he’s an expert or extreme learner. We, in turn, have much to learn from him.

Extreme learning

Autistic savants, Tammet tell us, are no more than ordinary brains doing extraordinary things through focus and extreme learning. He’s not afraid to attack known figures like Oliver Sachs and Tony Buzan, literally accusing Sachs of lying in an experiment and Buzan of lazy thinking on learning a second language. Theorists who attribute special abilities to savants also come under attack, especially those that assume unproven concepts such as photographic memories and genius-type subconscious ability. He shows that memories and abilities can be extraordinary, but that the techniques are ordinary. We can all learn how to learn better.

Magic of memory

He starts with a tour of the brain, with some interesting references to neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, along with the groundbreaking Pasceul-Leone piano experiment that showed the same levels of brain activity when both playing and simply imagining a piano exercise. In other words we learn by visualisation and mental rehearsal. But it’s his analysis of learning through feedback, the 'power or practice' (this law is ubiquitous) and structured diligent study that impresses.

Memory is explored in detail and it is here that Daniel drills down into his amazing abilities. He has the European record for remembering pi to 22,514 decimal places, learnt Icelandic in a week and has an astounding ability to learn new things. He explains contemporary memory theory, episodic/semantic, observer/field and construction at the point of recall, along with brain scan studies that show a complex process of reformulation, rather than duplication, of experiences. Autobiographical memory is multilayered in years/decades, days/weeks/months and finally in short second/minutes/hours. It’s a fine primer to the basic theory.

The first key to improved learning is to understand and apply the encoding of a learning experience by attending to its meaning. Elaborative encoding must integrate new information with pre-existing knowledge. In other words, you need a comprehension strategy, not just a memory strategy. This is where role playing, the use of our imagination, music (NOT the Mozart effect) and movement come in. Chunking and the visualisation of concrete images encode in such a way that they can be efficiently stored and recalled.

Consolidation is the next key, with sleep being an essential part of the process. It’s better to learn at night before one goes to sleep than during the day, with little chance of consolidation. Retrieval cues through contextual learning are also necessary. Here he has a go at classroom learning (the wrong disembodied context). Cue-rich learning is much more effective than disembodied learning. Forgetting through interference must also be avoided.

World of words

Savants are usually known for their numerical skills, but many have remarkable linguistic abilities. Daniels’s ability to learn a second language is superb. He shows that a second language is stored separately in the brain (except when acquired as a young child) and that one must learn a second language in a different way. He’s full of wonderful techniques based on repetition of sounds, songs, affixes, onomatopoeic words, word clusters, word relationships, pairs of words, nouns with articles and lots of reading, and uses his own experience as a multi-linguist to bring this all to life, with a great description of how he appeared on Icelandic TV and wowed them with his conversational Icelandic, learnt in a week. Language teachers should buy this book for this chapter alone.

Number instinct

We have an inborn ability to do maths, as has been shown by a battery of clever experiments with babies and infants. Born with the ability to recognise quantities between 1-4, and maths, he explains, we simply need perseverance and the simple visualisation of numbers to make it work for your own brain. He sets great store by the ‘languageness’ of maths. He could have gone much further here and explained how this and other practical techniques could be used to improve numeracy in schools. We know where and how learners fail in numeracy but continue to teach them in an abstract and dislocated fashion, leading to puzzlement and an early exit. We know that contextualising and visualising maths through the workplace, shopping and so on, improve learning, but still teach it in dull doses of abstraction.

Light to sight

On perception, he gives a reasonable account of the basics of the psychology of perception with an interesting account of famous Ramachandran and Hirstein’s ‘Science of Art’ paper, where they put forward a neurological theory of aesthetic experience, based on eight universal principles. This caused a stir among those who abhor reductionist approaches to art, but it’s fascinating stuff. The eight principles are; peak exaggeration shift, grouping of similar perceptual effects, isolation of a single visual component, contrast, perceptual problem solving, generic viewpoints, metaphors and symmetry.

Food for thought

The second half of the book is more speculative, but no less interesting. He has some insights into the danger of political correctness leading to a stifling of debate, something explored in Diane Ravitch’s The Language Police, where a simplistic morality may limit complex analysis. Urban myths are discussed in terms of their exaggeration, tipping over into scientific urban myths such as the link between MMR and autism. As an autistic person he hates this sort of pseudoscience. But it’s his speculation into the nature of belief, with his admiration for Spinoza’s idea of disbelief involving the rejection of belief that takes him beyond the simple scientific stuff. This guy is one smart cookie.

Information overload

David Schenk’s Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut sees info-glut as a psychological problem. We are immersed in many different flows of information and some psychologists have looked at the effect of this on our ability to concentrate, even sleep. He is also part of the backlash against the common belief that young people can multitask; they can’t, as studies by Marois, Horvitz and Iqbal have shown. This work has considerable consequences for the workplace where recovery times from emails and browsing have been shown to decrease productivity. He also brings in Roberstson’s study on the outsourcing of memory. All in all, he’s not fond of what Rosek called The Cult of Information – he’s an ideas man.

Forgivable weaknesses

The chapter on IQ is an interesting skim through the academic pros and cons of IQ testing, but says little about Daniel himself. In fact the book only springs into life when he’s relating his theories to his own wonderful experiences. The editor could, perhaps, have guided him more in this direction.


On page 176 he claims to ‘regularly spot misspellings and other subtle errors in the pages of a book or newspaper’ yet failed to spot the howler on page 147 where he describes his own number range landscape between ‘2,9000 (sic) and 3,000’. I’m no savant, in fact my wife suggests that this only goes to show shows that my talents are in being a pedant!

(Originally published in LINE’s newsletter)


magz said...

And as usual, your wife is right Great column, though! Cheers!

magz said...

By the way, "it only goes to show shows..." is far worse than missing one zero. As you see, I´m equally pedant. Cheers, cheers!